Earmarks can't solve the fiscal problem

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There’s been a bit of chatter lately along the lines that the ban on legislative earmarks (special spending provisions woven into congressional appropriation bills) that was imposed in 2011 should be eased. Some observers claim this could serve to (1) restore a proper balance between congressional and executive branch influence in spending decisions, and (2) foster more bipartisan cooperation in Congress (“bring us together”)

Many fiscal conservatives caution, however, that earmarks do more harm than good, i.e., the contemplated policy shift would contradict the president’s promise to “drain the swamp” in DC. One might add that earmarks can’t really be brought back into vogue anyway, as use of this device was never abandoned in the first place. Sorry, Mr. President, but you may need to find some other way of getting members of the two parties to work together.

1. Background – It’s been a while, but some readers may recall a dubious highway project in Alaska that was attacked by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and others on grounds that it cost too much money for the benefits to be derived. Road to nowhere: A national embarrassment, Ronald Utt, heritage.org, 10/20/05.

. . .the bridge in Alaska would connect the town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) with its airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50) at a cost to federal taxpayers of $320 million, by way of three separate earmarks in the recent highway bill. At present, a ferry service runs to the island, but some in the town complain about its wait (15 to 30 minutes) and fee ($6 per car).

This costly project wound up being dropped, and the use of earmarks (which had peaked at $29 billion in FY 2006) was officially banned after Republicans gained a House majority and narrowed the Democrats’ Senate margin in the 2010 elections. No one was under any illusion, however, that banning earmarks would have a much more than symbolic effect on government spending levels. Senate Republicans adopt voluntary earmark ban, Andy Sullivan, reuters.com,

•Though earmarks account for less than one half of a percent of the federal budget, they have become a symbol of wasteful spending for many grassroots Tea Party activists who helped Republicans win big in the November 2 elections. “I think it shows that this conference is serious about doing what it said we were going to be about -- limited government, spending reduction, dealing with the national debt,” said newly elected Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

•Earmarks, which have accounted for roughly $16 billion of the $3.5 trillion federal budget in recent years, have been a popular way for lawmakers to steer federal dollars back to their home districts and states. [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-NV] and other backers also say they are a way to ensure that Congress maintains some control over federal spending that otherwise would be managed by government agencies. *** “I think I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what’s important to Nevada and not what’s important to some bureaucrat with green eyeshades,” Reid said. Nevertheless, the Senate majority leader agreed to allow a vote and an earmark ban was ultimately adopted.

The immediate effect of the earmark ban was to inhibit the use of this device, but not eliminate it altogether. And as reported by Citizens Against Government Waste, the number and magnitude of earmarks soon began to rise again.
2017 Congressional Pig Book, cagw.org.

For the fifth time since Congress enacted an earmark moratorium that began in fiscal year (FY) 2011, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has unearthed earmarks in the appropriations bills. In fact, members of Congress have steadily ramped up the use of earmarks in each year since the initiation of the earmark moratorium. The 2017 Congressional Pig Book exposes 163 earmarks in FY 2017, an increase of 32.5 percent from the 123 in FY 2016. The cost of earmarks in FY 2017 is $6.8 billion, an increase of 33.3 percent from the $5.1 billion in FY 2016. While the increase in cost over one year is disconcerting, the 106.1 percent increase over the $3.3 billion in FY 2012, the first year after the moratorium, is downright disturbing.

Of course, judgments are involved in determining whether specific spending provisions do or don’t represent “pork” or “earmarks,” terms that seem to be essentially synonymous as used in the Pig Book. Here are the CAGW criteria:

As in previous years, all items in the Congressional Pig Book meet at least one of CAGW’s seven criteria, but most satisfy at least two: (a) requested by only one chamber of Congress; (b) not specifically authorized; (c) not competitively awarded; (d) not requested by the president; (e) greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; (f) not the subject of congressional hearings; or (g) serves only a local or special interest.

Which is not to say there is not lots of wasteful spending in the budget that does not take the form of earmarks. Compare the far higher totals in CAGW’s annual
“prime cuts” study of spending that could be eliminated with little if any damage to the Republic.

CAGW has been publishing Prime Cuts since 1993. The 2017 version contains 607 recommendations that would save taxpayers $336.2 billion in the first year and $2.3 trillion over five years. *** If all the Prime Cuts recommendations were adopted, a balanced budget could be achieved within three years.

II. Bipartisan talks – Something out of the ordinary happened on January 9, namely approximately an hour of bipartisan discussion of various topics was put on the public record by the simple expedient of not turning off the television cameras after the White House cabinet room meeting began. Opinions varied as to why this happened, but it generated some interesting discussion about the spending level negotiations that must be concluded (or extended) by January 19, an approach for DACA immigration reform, and – you guessed it – the possible merits of bringing back earmarks. Remarks by President Trump in meeting with bipartisan members of Congress on immigration, whitehouse.gov, 1/9/18.

One theory: the president was seeking to discredit claims in “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff that he is widely perceived to be mentally unstable and out of touch with reality – wherefore, in the view of critics, he could properly be removed from the presidency under the 25th Amendment. Trump proves he’s sane, Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Trump presided over this meeting like some previously undiscovered Buddha. He talked but didn’t dominate. He methodically elicited views from Republicans (among them Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy, David Perdue and Carlos Curbelo ) and Democrats (Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer, Dianne Feinstein ). Once you realized it wasn’t a brief photo-op before the doors closed, the meeting was sort of weird, with reporters and their notebooks looming over the legislators’ backs, but it was also weirdly impressive. They looked like politicians doing real work, and afterward the White House announced the framework of a deal on the Dreamers.

Theory two: the president was effectively challenging Democrats to put aside their obstructionist tactics and engage in bona fide negotiations on the legislative issues of the day with assurances that he and his Republican allies were ready, willing and able to meet them halfway. Whether this theory was valid or not, the president was praised by some members of the media who normally are unrelenting critics. See, e.g., CNN’s Wolf Blitzer showers praise on Trump for opening up immigration meeting to the press, Daniel Chaitin, Washington Examiner,

Later in the day, capping an interview with White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short, Blitzer again showered his admiration for the administration's transparency. “Thank you for allowing that meeting today to be open to our TV cameras," Blitzer told Short. "I think it was very productive, very important. Glad that we got to see the president and the Republicans and Democrats in action. Keep doing it."

Our view is that the president can be hard to keep up with. He often shifts gears unexpectedly, rather like FDR used to do, or says things that he may not actually mean. On many issues, he seems more interested in making a deal than in winning acceptance of a given policy position. And few if any of his remarks in the course of the January 9 meeting would prove to have much staying power.

#DEFERRED ACTION ON CHILDHOOD ARRIVALS - The president had said he planned to sign whatever bill negotiators came up with to regularize the DACA situation.

But you’re going to negotiate, [Sen.] Dick [Durbin, D-IL], you’re going to negotiate. Maybe we will agree and maybe we won’t. I mean, it’s possible we’re not going to agree with you and it’s possible we will, but there should be no reason for us not to get this done.

And, [Sen.] Chuck [Schumer, D-NY], I will say, when this group comes back — hopefully with an agreement — this group and others from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I’m signing it. I mean, I will be signing it. I’m not going to say, “Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.” I’ll be signing it, because I have a lot of confidence in the people in this room that they’re going to come up with something really good.

Two days later, however, when a self-appointed team of Senate negotiators (Republicans Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake & Cory Gardner; Democrats Dick Durbin, Michael Bennet & Robert Menendez) claimed to have come up with a DACA deal, the president seemed to have forgotten about his plans to sign whatever bill might be put in front of him. White House pushes back after Gang of Six announces immigration deal, Stephen Dinan, Washington Times,

The deal would have offered Mr. Trump less than 10 percent of his border wall, and only a 3 percent cut to existing paths of family-based chain migration. It would have eliminated the Diversity Visa Lottery, as Mr. Trump has demanded, but it would have taken the 50,000 annual lottery visas and used them to create a new pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of would-be illegal immigrants in the U.S. under temporary humanitarian protections. Countries such as El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras make up the majority of people here under that special Temporary Protected Status — and the demand that they be covered in any immigration deal appeared to irk the president.

Not only did the president make clear in a closed-door meeting that he wasn’t buying the proposed deal, which was certainly his prerogative, but he reportedly spoke of residents of the [expletive] countries who had enjoyed the “temporary humanitarian protections” that never seemed to lapse. These comments were gleefully reported by other attendees in an obvious effort to embarrass the president, and they have been repeated many times by the media (including Fox News, etc.) as though such reporting might somehow help bring the DACA negotiations to a constructive conclusion. The actual effect is more likely to be negative.

Any credit the president gained from trying to jumpstart bipartisan talks has evaporated, and congressional Democrats will reportedly attempt to censure him for his remarks. Democrats to try to censure Trump over harsh immigration comments, Stephen Dinan, Washington Times,

#SPENDING LEVELS - Re the standoff on spending levels, the president stated that it was necessary to take the defense spending limits out of politics. Why? If the country wasn’t securely defended, none of the other items on which people wanted to spend money really mattered.

But, Steny [Hoyer], we do have to take politics out of the military. We need that military. All the other things we talk about, we’re not going to be here if we don’t have the right military. And we need our military, and we need it stronger than ever before, and we’re ready to do it. But we have to take politics out of the military.

Fine, but nothing was said about adverse consequences if Democrats refused to cooperate, and the current minority party doesn’t seem to have any intention of giving ground on this issue whether the security of the country depends on it or not. New short-term spending bill would continue to hamper the military, Frederico Bartels, heritage.org,

Lawmakers are discussing the possibility of passing yet another continuing resolution on Jan. 19 to keep the government from shutting down. If another continuing resolution comes to fruition, it will be the fourth one since the fiscal year started back on Oct. 1. As of now, we have already passed more than one-quarter of the fiscal year, but the federal government has been unable to agree on appropriations allocation and has instead relied on temporary measures.

#CARROTS - The only basis the president offered for postponing a DACA deal (which doesn’t actually need to be accomplished until March) and insisting on resolution of the spending levels standoff by January 19 was to dangle carrots that might hopefully prompt a change in behavior.

The first possibility, which the president mentioned but didn’t dwell on, was to do a big infrastructure bill. After all, what’s more fun for legislators – Democrats and Republicans alike - than a “guilt-free” way to spend more money.

One thing that I think we can really get along with on a bipartisan basis — and maybe I’m stronger on this than a lot of the people on the Republican side, but I will tell you, we have great support from the Republicans — is infrastructure. I think we can do a great infrastructure bill. I think we’re going to have a lot of support from both sides, and I’d like to get it done as quickly as possible.

Considerably more time was devoted to a lighthearted discussion of earmarks, which the president characterized as an approach that could help to bridge the partisan divide.

I remember when I used to go out in Washington, and I’d see Democrats having dinner with Republicans. And they were best friends, and everybody got along. You don’t see that too much anymore. *** So maybe, and very importantly, totally different from this meeting, because we’re going to get DACA done — I hope we’re going to get DACA done, and we’re going to all try very hard — but maybe you should start bringing back a concept of earmarks. It’s going to bring you together. You’re going to do it honestly. You’re going to get rid of the problems that the other system had — and it did have some problems. But one thing it did is it brought everyone together. And this country has to be brought together.

III. We’ve seen this movie before - The president isn’t the only one who has raised the earmarks issue, and the House Rules Committee will reportedly spend some time talking about it this week. Congress’s spending scorecard so far: Punt, punt, punt, punt, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 1/13/18.

. . . in a nod to President Trump, House lawmakers will weigh whether to return earmarks to the legislative process after a seven-year ban. Lawmakers in both parties have complained the elimination of earmarks has made it more difficult to precisely allocate funding for much-needed projects in their districts. This week, Trump argued that letting them back in might make it easier to pass legislation. The House Rules Committee will hold a two-day hearing on earmarks that will include testimony from lawmakers and outside experts.

Count us as skeptical, however, that this device could have any substantial effect on the current spending level impasse. The real problem about spending levels is that there isn’t enough money to fund everyone’s priorities, whether earmarks make a comeback or not, and there are no credible sanctions for legislators who refuse to cooperate in a fiscally responsible budgeting process.

Many fiscal conservatives seem to be thinking along similar lines. Conservatives warn Trump not to revive earmarks if he wants to drain the swamp, Rachel del Guidice, Daily Signal,

In short, if the president hopes to provide effective leadership on the fiscal problem, he needs to stop trying to “buy support” and start holding people’s “feet to the fire.” Otherwise, it’s hard to envision the members of Congress doing anything about the fiscal problem except continuing to kick the can down the road.


#Thanks for all the great work you do. – SAFE member (DE)

# SPENDING is the first government “variable.” If it doesn't decline, GOVERNMENT doesn't decline either.

The Republicans seemingly think they can avoid this truth by focusing on other variables such as TAXES, but that waters down the incentives for controlling SPENDING. It all looks hopeless, especially with so much loose talk about a nuclear war.

I thought earmarks had been put off the table forever. What are the Republican "leaders" doing? – SAFE member (GA)

# From the cover note: “isn’t it apparent that the government’s fiscal problem needs to be addressed? " Not for the Democrats, who failed to protest when Obama spent $10 trillion and doubled the debt. They are operating in a 100% obfuscation mode.

Comment: If so, what should people who are viewing this situation realistically do about it before the roof falls in?

#From the cover note: “The motive is not to get results, it is to embarrass and if possible delegitimize [squiggly line underneath] the president.” Sure looks that way to me! Microsoft Word does not protest disenfranchise, but your meaning was clear enough. In any case, voting rights are generally the first dictionary definition for disenfranchise; second choice appears to be “the revocation of power or control of a particular individual, community or . . .”. College classmate (SC).

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